I cruised the Lower Ninth in my rented Ford, first time back since Katrina. Everything was gone.
When I found it at last, Jeffus sat high on his porch sipping julep from his big tin cup. House looked much the same, though the boards was new and the paint fresher. “How was your house spared so?” I asked.
He cackled up. “Child, this ain’t the same house. This here the Rodney’s place from down the street, there on the corner. My old house got knocked atumble and floated off. This here one stayed upright and floated close, so we jacked her up onto the footings and set to fixing her. Took nigh three years, but we got her done.”
“What the Rodneys say?”
Jeffus took a long swallow, then gave me his squint. “All them Rodneys is gone. Kilt or lost, but not a one of them ever come back here.”
In the 2000 U.S. census, 98 percent of Lower 9th Ward residents identified themselves as black, and of those, a little over half lived in households that earned $19,999 or less per year. It was a place rich in culture and heritage, home to musicians and artists who often inherited the small four-square houses from relatives. The Lower Ninth was a place apart, cut off from the city proper by a shipping channel.
During Hurricane Katrina, the Industrial Canal’s flood walls gave way and water surged through the neighborhood and pushed hundreds of houses off their foundations. Water up to 12 feet deep stood in some areas for weeks. It was the last neighborhood to have power and water service restored, and the last to be pumped dry.
Today, there’s a feeling of desolation on nearly every block of the predominantly African-American neighborhood. Block after block of empty lots, jagged foundations and tangled brush where there had once been one of the great Amercian neighborhoods. Less than 37% of its residents had returned a decade later.
George greeted me with his usual smile, ushered me up onto the shoe bench as he got out the tin and rag, his long fingers deft and surprisingly unstained.
“You still got any shoes with me?” he said, peering up. “I know I had those oxfords.”
“No, you finished them last month.” I looked at the wall crowded with pictures, framed clippings, awards. George and the mayor, George and the governor, George and the chief of police. Everybody came here for a shine. “How long has it been again?”
“I been doing this seventy years,” he said. “Long enough.”
This story is inspired by George Manias, who has run a shoeshine and hat cleaning store in downtown Peoria since 1948. Unlike this story, George’s is still open. He wants to make 75. I think he’ll make it.
She’d been awake for a long time when the knock came.
“Come in,” she called.
“I’m sorry to wake you, ma’am. We haven’t yet set a schedule––”
“Please. Stop. No apologies.” She threw back the covers and stood, surveying the room as the orderly opened the curtains to let the January sunlight spill through the tall windows. “So much history,” she said.
“Yes ma’am,” said the orderly.
Dressed and breakfasted, she walked into the Oval Office and stood for a moment. So many years to get here, the arduous forever campaign that really started, if she was honest, in grade school.
The Chief of Staff opened the side door. “Good morning, Ms. President.” He held a clipboard. “Before we get started, somebody important is waiting to meet you.”
A most unusual man came in, seven feet tall with a gray oblong head and tilted obsidian eyes. He extended a long hand. “Ms. President.”
The walls and floor are of fitted stone, the elm ceiling beams adzed from trees long perished. In a corner is a basin chiseled from river rock. An iron pipe juts from the wall and drips into the basin, each drop a musical note in the stillness.
The silence is immense except for the basin’s drip and the sometime whisper of a snake moving across the floor.
The boy knows from books that snakes are creatures who wish only to be left alone. They will not trouble him here. This has become his place. He will tell no one about it.
You have of course heard of the Koh-i-Noor, the famous Mountain of Light. It is said this diamond was carried through history on a torrent of men’s blood, and that any male who possesses it will add his own to the river.
Legend tells us the stone was mined from Galconda by King Alauddin Khalji. Babur the Mughal received it as a spoil and was assassinated by a rival. His great grandson presented the stone to the Afghan Shah Durrani, who wore it as a bracelet while losing his life in battle. Son to son it passed, each new owner meeting a grisly fate.
The defeated Maharaja of Lahore presented the Koh-i-Noor to Queen Victoria as a peace offering. She commanded it be set as the centerpiece of the Royal Crown of Great Britain.
Is it mere coinicidence that the only two long-reigning British monarchs since this event have been women?
This story is inspired by a novel I am reading, George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman and the Mountain of Light. In this book, the narrator recounts how Britain barely retained possession of its chief colonly during the 1849 Anglo-Sikh war. The Koh-i-Noor serves as a touchstone for his recollection and is glimpsed throughout the story.
A reporter from an anti-establishment newspaper in Seattle once asked a 67-year-old Jacques Cousteau if he had faith in anything. Cousteau gave a strange reply: “I believe in the instant.” Cousteau’s wholesome public image was at odds with his private conduct, which included a taste for fame, multiple mistresses, and at least two illegitimate children he refused to acknowledge.
May 24th After thirty-six hours on deck, I set the drag anchor and turned in below.
Worst mistake of my life.
The storm drove me onto something in the dark, an uncharted reef or maybe a shipwreck.
Whatever it was, it tore a three-foot gash in the starboard hull.
I set the pump working and tomorrow I’ll try to heel the boat so I can get at the leak.
May 25th The hole is patched as well as I can do it, but I ran out of resin.
It’s a botch-job, and I doubt if it will take much sea.
The bad news is that whatever I hit tore the wheel off the starboard motor.
To make Djakarta I’ll have to rely on sail alone.
June 18th Not a breeze since the 30th.
Running short of provisions.
Mariners called this “the doldrums.”
I have another name for it.
Mrs. Stouffer fussed around the dessert table with shakers of Christmas glitter-candy, liberally dusting everything in sight with red and green sparkles–– a chafing dish of cheese blintzes, an apple tart, Mrs. Glück’s “famous” chocolate torte. Finally, the glitter ran out.
“Thank God,” muttered Mrs. Dogsbill. “That table looks like a kindergarten art room.”
“She can’t bake to save her life,” said Mrs. Cragsmorton. “So she does this.”
Mrs. Stouffer looked at her shakers and realized the glitter was gone. She went over to where she’d set her handbag and produced two more jars, one of blue, one of yellow.
The old smuggler hoisted the xahako and arced a hissing stream of wine from the goatskin into his open mouth without a wasted drop. Whether this was a display of skill or frugality was hard to say; he was said to have ample amounts of both qualities.
He wiped his beard with his hand and smiled. “You, Kakamutiko! Did you in your indolence forget the bread? God help us if we starve to death.”
“No, Uncle,” said the young man. He produced a squat loaf from his satchel and handed it across.
Outside the hut the wind moaned through the passes, giving the mountains a voice. The fire danced in the hearth, throwing queer shadows on the ancient stone walls.
“And the sausage, for the love of God?” said the old man. “Please tell me you did not neglect that.”
The boy produced a string of blood-red chorizo and a clasp-knife.
“Arraioa!” exclaimed the smuggler. “You’d make a good wife!”
The Basque have lived in the Pyrenees for centuries, inhabiting villages in the forbidding mountains that straddle France and Spain. Their language is the most ancient in Europe and is unrelated to any other tongue.
A fiercely proud and strong people, they have long struggled for national independence, sometimes violently.
Their contributions to culture include the “Spanish” goatskin wine bag and the “French” beret.